by Chris Harris
A new sound is blowing into Somerset — and is hoping to attract some of the town’s top brass. Literally.
Organization of the Cumberland Brass Band is underway, a group that hopes to offer Pulaski County and the surrounding area something fresh and unique in the form of musical entertainment.
“What we want is for the community to have the opportunity to hear something a little different,” said Rev. John Francis, musical director for the Cumberland Brass Band. “We’re in bluegrass county and that’s a big part of our heritage.
“(However), there are a lot of people in the community who spend thousands of dollars on instruments that they no longer use,” he added. “We want to give them the opportunity and the venue to be able to be creative and artistic.”
Francis, Minister of Music and an associate pastor at Beacon Hill Baptist Church, noted that many individuals took band or some other form of musical ensemble in school, for which they purchased expensive instruments. Not all of them went into music as a career, however, and for many of those that didn’t, the opportunity to still play their horns other than for themselves hasn’t been in plentiful supply. That’s one thing the Cumberland Brass Band would like to change.
A native of the area, Francis returned to Somerset a few years ago and started a small orchestra at Beacon Hill, fulfilling his own need for keep up his craft: “As a musician, I’ve always had the desire to play,” he said.
Conversations with friend and fellow trumpet player James Mercer turned to the community’s need for a musical ensemble that adult citizens could participate in; about three or four months ago, Francis began having conversations with members of the Watershed Arts Alliance and the Carnegie Community Arts Center, as well as radio personality Wynona Padgett, about the possibility of a community band,
“I met with them and did some research, did some talking around, and realized it could be a very viable, positive force in the community,” he said, “for people who played well in high school and got out of the habit. People who didn’t have a place to play and would find a good opportunity to do that (with us).”
Brass bands are a staple of many communities throughout the country and in Europe — movie fans may remember the 1996 Ewan McGregor film “Brassed Off” as an example of one — and that’s true even here in central Kentucky, where nearby Danville annually hosts The Great American Brass Band Festival. Among those performing at this year’s festival — scheduled for June 5-8 — is the Advocate Brass Band of Danville, as well as bands from places like Frankfort, Lexington and Louisville, and major out-of-state cities like New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Washington DC and New York City.
Francis and his wife recently went to “pick the brain” of Vince DiMartino, a renowned trumpeter and teacher at Centre College in Danville, a man very familiar with the city’s musical tradition as a founding member of the Advocate Brass Band.
“We took copious amounts of notes and asked questions,” said Francis. “I don’t want this to be another fly-by-night, ‘That was a fun summer’ group. We want to build something for the community.”
The first organizational meeting for the Cumberland Brass Band was held this past week. Francis called it an “amazing success” for the interest shown by local citizens.
“We definitely had the making of a good group,” he said. “There were about 12 people present, and about five more people who couldn’t make it that night but wanted to play a major role in starting the group. Then there were another 20 people listed (by those present) as thought to be very interested.”
Francis said they’re trying to get the word out now about the formation of the band so people can be aware to come to the first rehearsal on June 5 at 6 p.m., likely in the Southern Middle School band room. With about 15-20 people already on board that Francis himself has communicated with, he’s very optimistic already about the band’s future.
Though it’s all a volunteer effort for the love of music right now, Francis is hopeful that eventually, once the band is established, they would be able to provide a stipend for members, as well as for the conductor and a librarian positions.
“It would be a small stipend per player for gas, child care, etc.,” said Francis. “It’s a nice way to assure (members) that some of the provacations in life that could keep them from doing this is taken care of.”
Right now, Francis is hoping the band can play at established local events, like the downtown “Sunset Serenade” series this summer.
“We’re trying to tack onto existing events because we don’t have the star power to start a concert series,” he said. “Over the next few years, as we get more involved and more people understand what we’re doing, we want to start a regular concert series.”
Those interested can visit the Cumberland Brass Band’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/cumberlandbrassband, to learn more and to get in touch with organizers if they would like to get involved. The page already has over 300 “likes” from Facebook fans.
Francis himself plays jazz trumpet and classical trumpet both and has been involved with the El Salvador National Symphony Orchestra, playing a concert with them in the last month. He noted that he frequently plays with his cousin Adam Hopper, the band director at Southern Middle School, who is also interested in the brass band idea — just as he hopes more and more members of the community will be once they key in on it as well.
“People coming together is always a good idea,” said Francis. “Friendships are created, a good time is had by all when people of like minds can come together, and if you’re musicians, this is one way of doing that. Music is a sublime form of communication.”